The two sister cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater share about 35 miles of beach along the west coast of Florida. Children and adults can frolic along the sandy shores or venture farther into the water, leaning on boats, cruises, and kayaks to lounge in the sea. When they return to land, a treasure trove of art collections awaits at various museums. But if enclosed spaces get too stuffy, visitors can choose to view more than 600 street murals instead. Afterward, when an appetite has been worked up, they can indulge in fresh seafood from the Gulf or a menu with a more rural and rustic feel. There’s just too much to enjoy in the area, so when Visit St. Pete/Clearwater brought Los Angeles-based Tom Kubik to assist their tourism campaign last year, he knew there was a lot of ground to cover.
Initially, the campaign was geared to be a TV spot with stills support. But when it expanded beyond out-of-home advertising and entered the national space, BVK, the agency handling the campaign for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, realized the need for a better photography team. That’s when Tom’s agent at the time, Joe Lombardo, advocated on his behalf and reeled in the gig.
BVK landed on me because of my ability to pull real moments out of produced environments. They wanted connected, genuine moments, and that’s where I thrive, whether I’m working with real people or actors. My style is to assimilate into the group, then quietly and gently guide the experience toward the objective. Doing this with tourism photography creates a viewer immersive experience, which is so powerful for campaigns.
The campaign would have two objectives. The first was to highlight the places and activities unique to the St. Pete/Clearwater area. The second was to focus on the emotional experience of the visit. This aspect would be presented via the subjects across the various locations.
Tom didn’t have to worry about some of the typical heavy lifting that occurs before production. Instead, director Michael McCourt, who handled the video component of the campaign, managed the location scouting and casting. Still, when it was time to shoot in May 2022, everything wasn’t exactly a breeze.
This was a behemoth of a shoot. We shot 12 hours a day for 4 days covering 2 to 5 locations per day. Sometimes, there were lower-priority scenarios that we only covered for 30 to 45 minutes, like a scene in front of a mural that was next to a bigger set. In the more important locations, we spent up to 3 hours shooting. The longest set was the catamaran, where we were out on the water for 4 hours.
Then there was the usual challenge of hybrid productions, where the video and photo teams must share precious time on set. This often leaves the stills team with only a few minutes to capture certain shots. It was a difficult situation for Tom, who had to settle for “good enough” when he wanted to go for “perfect.” A relatively ad hoc shot list was also a source of stress, but it’s something that he has learned to harness for the better.
So much of what we shot was run-and-gun, which didn’t give me time to think through the best compositions. Sometimes, though, having that stress creates a flow state, and something more interesting emerges because I’m not relying on my thinking brain. So, even though it’s stressful, it often presses the boundaries of my work.
Some moments of mental pressure aside, Tom admits it was a fun production. One reason is his general ethos on set, doing his utmost to create a relaxed environment no matter what. The other reason was the team from BVK, who kept the mood light by kicking off an impromptu dance party. That situation arose when Tom had to keep taking shots from progressively lower angles, and Creative Director Nicole Irland put on the song “Get Low” so that everyone could blow off some steam.
Setting the fun aside, the production allowed the photographer to lean on his experience and personal insights. Tom’s a California resident, but the aesthetic of the West Coast would not do for the Sunshine State.
Differentiating Florida and California is an interesting task. Much of that is in the casting. California culture comes through strongly in the characters. Having shot for Visit Florida before, I am also aware that Florida doesn’t like sunsets so much because of the retirement culture and its potential to symbolize death. Since California is west coast, I think everyone feels right at home in the sunset over the ocean.
Besides the people and the symbolism of the sun, Tom also had to be mindful of the water.
The water in Florida, particularly on the Gulf Coast, is a main feature, and the color of the water is best seen in the middle of the day. I wouldn’t dare shoot at Californian beaches during midday. Yuck!
By knowing his West Coast from the East Coast, Tom avoided egregious errors that would have doomed any other photographer. The shades and hues of the sun and water were pitch-perfect for Florida’s atmosphere.
See more of Tom’s work on his website.
Client: Visit St. Pete/Clearwater
Creative Director: Nicole Irland
Producer: Martha Switalski
Director: Michael McCourt
AD: M.K. Glidewell
Camera Assistant: Jessica Lewis
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